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Singapore ponders how to tackle racism

October 17, 2022
topics: Racism
by: Gabriele Bettinazzi
tags: ethnic minorities, racism, Singapore

Growing awareness about the need to confront racism and discrimination is taking hold in the city. But there is still a long way to go.

While chatting on a dating app in Singapore at the age of 16, Sharvesh Leatchmanan was once asked if his skills in the sack were similar to those of a monkey. This was just one of many lewd offences he was subjected to while looking for a partner online; but he’s also had his fair share of racist jokes made about his skin colour.

"On the playground or at school people can be mildly racist, attacking [or avoiding] you for the colour of your skin," Leatchmanan, who is a Singaporean of Indian heritage, said in an interview with Fair Planet. "But on dating apps I have been either sexually fetishised [because of my race] or racially discriminated."

Chats with several people from ethnic minorities made him realise they all had similar experiences, but they were rarely discussed. Therefore, he and one of his friends in 2020 decided to start an Instagram page called Minority Voices in order to shed light on the detrimental impact of racism in Singapore.

"We wanted to have a space where we could talk about our experiences and share what we are feeling to support one another and also amplify our voices," he explained.

Since its inception, the platform has disseminated many stories of racist bullying and/or discrimination in several settings like school or the workplace. It quickly garnered several thousand followers - signalling that these experiences are all too common for some Singaporeans from minority groups.  

This reality has been further cemented in public consciousness by a series of racist incidents and aggressions that made headlines in the city recently. It also alarmed the government, with the Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong cautioning that there is "always the risk we will regress and move backwards" in terms of racial justice. 

Such racist attacks have plagued the multiracial city since its independence in the 1960s - when racial riots between Chinese, who make up the vast majority of the population, and Malays led to hundreds of injured and several deaths.

These instances are now uncommon, according to Dr Mathew Mathews, Principal Research Fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies. In an interview with FairPlanet, he said that recent national surveys indicate that among ethnic minorities "the proportion of those who have experienced racist jokes and aggressions is small."   

Yet almost six in 10 Singaporeans consider racism an important problem, according to Attitudes, Actions and Aspiration: Key findings from the CAN-IPS Survey on Race Relations 2021, a report co-authored by to Dr Mathews.

Public debate over racism in the limelight

One main reason that these concerns came into the spotlight, despite significant improvements in racial integration and the decreased levels of racial violence compared to the past, is perhaps that an increasingly open discussion about racism has been taking place in Singapore over the last few years. Minority Voices (Leatchmanan's Instagram page) and the documentary Regardless of Race, for instance, continue to raise awareness about the persistence of racism in the city. 

"In earlier days, these issues were seen as very sensitive and the best option was considered not to discuss them" for fear that such discussion could spiral out of control, explained Dr Mathews. "But that has changed, and today the population is more educated, aware of worldwide discussion around race like the Black Lives Matter movement, and there’s a growing interest in talking about these issues in a civil way." 

Leatchmanan agrees that there has been growing discourse about the need to address racism and discrimination in the last couple of years: multiple conferences on these topics have been recently organised by the Institute of Policy Studies, and he was even invited to a closed-door meeting with the Minister for Culture, Community and Youth to discuss them.

However, he believes that these efforts, including the proposal of instituting an anti-discrimination law, are yet to bear fruits.

"The conversation itself is happening, so that’s great," he said. "But I feel like it’s just performative" he added, claiming that despite the proliferation of conversations he isn't seeing any concrete change taking place.  

Racist narratives conceal socioeconomic inequities 

One key manifestation of racism in the city centres around negative prejudice, and the Malay community often bears the brunt ofit.

"I once got in a taxi and the driver was like 'are you married?' I said no, and then he went on, 'it’s very difficult to find a good Malay guy because all of them are drug addicts,' " Mysara Aljaru, a Malay Singaporean creative, writer and researcher, told FairPlanet.

This encounter exemplifies one of several common stereotypes of Malays. Members of the ethnic group are also seen as lazy, uneducated, unsuccessful and more likely to develop obesity - traits that racist narratives ascribe to Malay culture and communities.

Some data does show that Malays account for the lowest percentage of Singaporean university graduates compared to Chinese and Indians, while outnumbering other groups in terms of drug use and obesity.

"Year after year at the national day rally, we are told that we are not doing well and that we need to catch up with other races," Aljaru said. "Growing up as a Malay in Singapore you feel like the unwanted child. If you do something wrong - it’s going to be all your fault."

This narrative, however, obscures systemic socioeconomic barriers that put Malay Singaporeans at a disadvantage compared to other ethnic groups in the city.     

In 2020, Malays had an average household income from work of SGD $6,851 (USD $4,814), almost half of the Chinese (S$10,812) and Indian (S$11,688) averages. One study suggests that this disparity might be partially due to racial bias, as its results show that "Chinese participants rated Malay applicants as less competent, less suitable for the job, and recommended a lower salary than equally qualified Chinese applicants."

The same bias seems to be shared by Malays and Indians when determining the salaries for people of different races but with identical CVs. 

Minorities may also have difficulty landing a job because many employers search for Mandarin-speaking candidates even when the tasks involved don’t necessitate command of this language.

After starting Minority Voices, "I got a message from someone who told me 'I work in HR and we throw away CVs just because there’s an Indian or Malay name on it,' like they don’t even look at the CVs," said Leatchmanan.

In education, the Anti-racism Coalition Singapore (ARCS) report highlights that Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools - elite and well-funded institutions established to preserve Chinese-medium schools and make students fluent in both Chinese and English - contribute to gaps between minority students and their Chinese peers by granting unequal access to educational opportunities.

Although the schools are open to any student proficient in Chinese, most students with such a skill are likely to be of Chinese ancestry.

Furthermore, it is well-documented that those with limited financial resources underperform in school across countries and races, have worse health outcomes, are more likely to develop substance abuse problems and have reduced opportunities in life, which ultimately engenders inter-generational inequities.

Some people from low-income families beat the odds - and Singapore does well in this regard compared to other countries; but such individuals are more likely to be an exception to the rule as opposed to living proofs of a just and equitable system.

A two-pronged approach to racism

An effective strategy to counter racism would both dismantle systemic barriers and change patterns of thinking that perpetuate the problem, according to Aljaru.

She suggested that the first objective involves tackling inequalities in an aggressive way as well as ensuring that members of minority groups have equal access to education, employment and housing.

The ARCS report recommends allocating more "resources to ensure that all persons, including members of ethnic minority groups, have non-discriminatory access to an adequate standard of living," by increasing, among other things, wage supplementation schemes.

It also highlights that eliminating "procedural hurdles" that make it difficult for low-income people to access existing benefits is equally as crucial.    

The report also recommends opening SAP schools to all students, including non-Chinese speakers, and setting up an independent body to investigate discriminatory practices, ensure these aren’t repeated and offer remedies.

The government's announcement that it will create a tribunal to deal with workplace discrimination and ensure fair treatment is perceived as a positive development by many. 

The second objective entails rejecting narratives that associate inherent traits, either negative or positive, with specific races as well as mainstream ideas of success that value people based on their academic or career achievements.

To a certain extent, this is what Aljaru has done through her writing and artistic performance. In the 2021 collaborative performance lecture Brown is Haram, for instance, she satirises the dominant minority model dictating that minority individuals have to excel in certain areas like law, STEM or public service in order to prove their value while those who don’t achieve as much are to blame  for their lack of success or, in the best-case scenario, should simply be helped to work harder.  

"Until the community breaks away from this chain of what a successful minority should look like, it’ll be stuck in this idea that, no matter what you do, you are not doing enough," she said. Instead, she added, we should all "set our own idea of success without having to worry about what others think."

Finally, experts said an anti-racist mindset should consider any offensive joke or remark about people’s race as a full-blown iteration of racism rather than brush it off as casual jest: an attitude minorities often have to endure.

Some school friends once joked that they couldn’t see Leatchmanan because his brown skin was blending with the dark wall. To this day, he wonders why some people fail to understand that such remarks affect minorities emotionally and psychologically.

"It might be a joke to you," he said, "but why is someone’s skin colour, ethnicity or race a joke to anybody?"

Image by Hannah Sibayan.



Article written by:
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Gabriele Bettinazzi
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Singapore's Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong cautioned that there is "always the risk we will regress and move backwards" in terms of racial justice. 
Malays in Singapore continue to be associated with racist narratives.
The government's announcement that it will create a tribunal to deal with workplace discrimination and ensure fair treatment is perceived as a positive development by many.
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